It’s the first full day of the 39th Portland International Film Festival, and that means there are more filmic discoveries on local screens today than you can shake a stick at. Unless you happen to be really, really, good—like Olympic-level good—at stick-shaking. Hard to rank these sorts of things precisely, but, in vaguely descending order of awesomeness, here’s the pick of the litter:
“The Lobster”: This is the fifth feature by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, and despite working for the first time with bona fide movie stars, he hasn’t lost any of the deadpan eccentricity of “Dogtooth” or “Alps.” Colin Farrell gives perhaps the best, least actorly performance of his career as a middle-aged schlub with a mustache and a gut who’s been dumped by his long-term girlfriend. In the dystopian world of “The Lobster,” he’s send to a hotel in the country where, along with all the other single people, he has 45 days to fall in love with someone or be transformed into the animal of his choice.
It’s a marvelous metaphor for the tyrannical way society imposes relationship norms, as Farrell ultimately rebels against the rules and flees into the woods to join an outlaw band of loners (who turn out to be just as fanatical in their own way). John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw are great as fellow single guys, and Rachel Weisz shines as the loner woman who might just unlock Farrell’s heart. A great, total unsentimental movie about love, and a must-see if you can get a Valentine’s Eve ticket. (If not, don’t panic—“The Lobster” will be back in town in a couple months.)
(Greece, 119 min., in English) Sat., Feb. 13, 6 p.m., Cinema 21
“April and the Extraordinary World”: This is one I’ve been talking up ever since I saw it in preparation for the Rendezvous with French Cinema event. It’s a family-friendly animated feature set in an alternate version of 1941 Paris, where electricity was never invented and Napoleon V rules the land. Our hero is a spunky teen girl (voiced by Marion Cotillard) who, accompanied by her taking cat, Darwin, embarks on a quest to find her long-lost parents and rescue the world’s kidnapped scientists. It’s like a steampunk take on a Tintin adventure, and loads of fun for subtitle-readers of all ages. (There’s some sci-fi violence that might rattle very young kids, just FYI.)
(France, 105 min., in French with English subtitles) Sat., Feb. 13, 1:15 p.m.; also Wed., Feb. 17, 6 p.m., Regal Fox Tower.
“Aferim!”: For most of its running time, this black-and-white Romanian road movie (I didn’t lose you, there, did I?) is an amiable, slightly scabrous affair. It’s 1835, and a constable brings his teenage son along as he travels the Wallachian countryside in search of a runaway Roma slave. (Slavery was not outlawed in the area until 1856.) In his third feature, director Radu Jude paints an almost Boschian portrait of benighted, filthy humanity. The foul-mouthed, sadistic cop bullies his way along the road, instructing his son in what he sees as the innate hierarchical structure of the social order. In other words, if he were a D&D character he’d definitely be lawful evil.
That said, he’s an entertaining villain, full of bluster, and personable enough that when the true depths of his cruelty and malice are eventually revealed, the effect is like a punch to the moral solar plexus.
(Romanian, 108 min., in Romanian, Roma, and Turkish with English subtitles) Sat., Feb. 13, 6:15 p.m., Whitsell Auditorium; also Mon., Feb. 22, 8:30 p.m., Roseway Theater.
“A Good American”: This straightforward, talking-head style documentary focuses on the story of Bill Binney, a longtime intelligence official who developed a program known as ThinThread while working at the National Security Agency during the 1990s. ThinThread was, according to Binney and other interviewees, one of the first methods developed to track the metadata of global communications over telephones, e-mail, and more. It also reportedly retained Constitutional privacy protections, but was discontinued in August of 2001 in favor of a program designed by an outside contractor.
Binney quit the NSA in October 2001, and he believes that ThinThread could have prevented 9/11. Of course, then-NSA Director Michael Hayden and others involved declined to be interviewed for the film, so we have only the word of Binney and his colleagues and allies to go on. That’s easily enough, though, for “A Good American” to rank alongside “CitizenFour” as essential documentaries about the excesses and failures of the modern American intelligence community.
(United States, 100 min., in English) Sat., Feb. 13, 1:15 p.m., World Trade Center; also Mon., Feb. 15, 8:30 p.m., World Trade Center and Wed., Feb. 17, 8:30 p.m., World Trade Center.